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It seems no form of personal communication is safe from government spying these days. The National Security Agency has been sifting through millions of contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts around the world in its effort to find possible links to terrorism or other criminal activity, according to a published report, says The Associated Press. (via The Huffington Post) This includes Americans as well.

According to the AP, the spy agency intercepts hundreds of thousands of email address books daily from private accounts on Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook and Hotmail that move though global data links. The NSA also gathers about a half million buddy lists from live chat services and email accounts.

The news outlet said it found out about the collection tactics from secret documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and confirmed the find with senior intelligence officials. This is just the latest revelation of the NSA’s practices to be disclosed by Snowden, the former NSA systems analyst who fled the U.S. and now lives in Russia.

The NSA analyzes the contacts to map relationships and connections among various foreign intelligence targets. The NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected more than 440,000 email address books, during a typical day last year. That would equal a rate of more than 250 million a year. The agency was seeking intelligence on valid targets and was not interested in personal information from ordinary Americans, a spokesman for the national intelligence director’s office, which oversees the NSA, told the AP. According to spokesman Shawn Turner, the NSA was guided by rules that require it to “minimize the acquisition, use and dissemination” of data that identifies U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

The culling of this data took place overseas but encompassed the contact lists of many American users. The NSA gets the contact lists through secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or other services that control Internet traffic. Such a collection of information would be illegal if done in the United States.

The AP quoted a senior intelligence official as saying NSA analysts may not search or distribute information from the contacts database unless they can “make the case that something in there is a valid foreign intelligence target in and of itself.”

Are you concerned about NSA snooping?

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